Mounting Watercolor Paper to a Panel

For the last few months, I’ve experimented with mounting watercolor paper to a cradled wood panel for my work. The idea came from my friend and fellow artist, JAW Cooper. She wrote a tutorial on her own blog about this process. I’ve since adjusted just a few things for my own purposes, so I thought I’d document my own process. This is the fourth panel I’ve created in this manner and the first that I feel pretty good about, including the varnishing technique, which can get very tricky.

Here’s what you’ll need (follow links for product information):

If you’d rather watch a video of this method, check out my “Process and Tutorials in Watercolor” video!

Step One: Tape the edge of your board with painter’s tape and use the squeegee to press it as firmly to the edge as possible. This is  not only to keep the gesso and matte medium off the edges, but you also don’t want your water media (as you’re painting) to seep over and into the panel’s edges.

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Step two: Apply the gesso to the surface with a foam brush. This is to create a barrier between the paper and the wood, since over time the acid in the wood will seep into the paper if you don’t protect it. The matte medium might do a well enough job, but I’m not sure of this, so gesso is your best bet for protecting the underside of the paper from the wood’s acid. One coat is probably enough.

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Step three: Take your 120 grit sandpaper (or something similar) and give the gesso’s surface a once-over. You just want to even out the surface enough that there won’t be any noticeable bumps when you press the paper later.

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Step four: If you haven’t already, trace your surface over your paper (make sure that gesso is dry!), and then cut around it, leaving about 1″ of space all around. Set that paper aside. Also, make sure you have a flat surface ready with paper towels, like below.

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Step five: It’s really important that you work very quickly here, since the matte medium dries pretty quickly. Spread out a hefty dollop of the medium over your gessoed surface with a large brush. Leave a little extra at the edges. Then, line up the panel over your paper that’s been set aside. Gently press it down. For this 14″ x 18″ piece, this step took about a minute. Any longer, and I would’ve needed to reapply the medium.

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Step six:  Flip the panel back over with the paper at the top. Take your brayer and, starting in the middle and working to each edge, roll it over the paper with as much pressure as you can muster. The goal is to have as few bubbles under the paper as possible to make sure the medium is spread out evenly underneath.

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Step seven: Put the panel paper side down over the paper towels and pile weighted objects over it. Try to evenly distribute the weight if possible, too. Turns out my college art history books are pretty useful here! I’ve also got a smaller panel (12″ x 16″) on the inside to help distribute the weight. Leave it overnight, or for at least a few hours.

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Step eight: After the matte medium has fully dried and adhered to the paper, remove your weights. You’ll now need to cut away the excess paper. I’m using an x-acto knife with a fresh blade to cut into the edges. If you’re not confident with your abilities here, using a stiff ruler as a barrier between the panel and the knife will help you get a more precise cut that can later be sanded away.

Step nine: Using your 600 grit sandpaper, sand DOWN at an angle to remove any excess paper and get a cleaner edge. If you sand upwards, you’ll risk pulling the paper away from the panel. After this, you’re ready to paint! DON’T remove the tape yet, though!

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Step ten: Once your painting is complete, it’s time to varnish and prepare the panel for hanging. After all, the surface needs protection too! Everyone has different methods for varnishing water media paintings – this is one I’ve worked on for years and only recently settled on what I do now. You’ll need acrylic spray varnish to start. The spray varnish is important since brushing on varnish at this stage will only smear your watercolor work. (If you’ve painted with acrylic, you can use brush-on varnish). I typically do 2-3 coats allowing for ample drying time in between each coat. I prefer to use GLOSS varnish since matte varnish reduces the brilliance of any color I’ve used. However, if you’re using gouache or have used thickly applied watercolor, the gloss will make those parts shine and not others. Because that was the case here, I then used a brush on satin finish acrylic varnish. I did about 5-6 coats, applying alternately in vertical and horizontal coats. Once you’re happy with the finish, you can remove the painter’s tape!

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Step eleven:

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To prepare the panel for hanging, I’ve used to hook eye screws on the inside of the panel, wrapped framer’s wire, and added four felt stickies. I’ve also added the information about the painting in the back for archival purposes.

Step twelve: Hang it up and give yourself a high five!

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